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Consuelo Vanderbilt

The penultimate marital prize of the Victorian age, Consuelo Vanderbilt (March 2, 1877 - December 6, 1964) was the international emblem of the kind of glory that could be attained if a girl only had a mother bloodless enough to force an emotionally unwelcome but socially advantageous marriage.

Born in New York City in 1877, she was the only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire, and his first wife, a pugnacious Alabama belle and budding suffragette named Alva Erskine Smith (1853-1933, later Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont). Her exotic Spanish name was in honor of her godmother, Maria Consuelo Yznaga del Valle (1858-1909), a half-Cuban, half-American socialite who created a social stir a year earlier when she married the fortune-hunting George Victor Drogo Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, a union of Old World and New World that caused the groom's father, the 7th duke of Manchester, to openly wonder if his son and heir had married a "Red Indian." (Consuelo,Duchess of Manchester was also the basis of the character Conchita Closson in Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers.)

Consuelo Vanderbilt also attracted numerous title-bearing suitors anxious to trade social position for cash, including Prince Leopold of Isenberg. None, however, was good enough for Alva Vanderbilt. Luckily, as opposed to more than a few contemporary heiresses in search of her particular prince charming, she was a great beauty, with a face compelling enough to cause the playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write, "I would stand all day in the street to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage."

Determined to secure the highest-ranking mate possible for her only daughter, a union that would emphasize the preeminence of the Vanderbilt family in New York society, Alva Vanderbilt engineered a meeting between Consuelo and the land-rich, money-poor 9th duke of Marlborough, chatelain of Blenheim Palace. The matchmaker was a minor American heiress turned major English hostess, Mary (Minnie) Stevens, a.k.a. Lady Paget, a hotel scion who became the wife of a newly minted British knight and then reputedly set up shop as a sort of international marital agent.

Unfortunately Consuelo Vanderbilt had no interest in the duke, being secretly engaged to an American, Winthrop Rutherfurd. Her mother cajoled, wheedled, begged, and then, ultimately, ordered her daughter to marry Marlborough. When Consuelo -- an docile teenager whose only notable characteristic at the time was abject obedience to her fearsome mother -- made plans to elope, she was locked in her room as Alva threatened to murder Rutherfurd. Still, she refused. It was only when Alva Vanderbilt claimed that her health was being seriously and irretrievably undermined by Consuelo's stubbornness and appeared to be on death's door did the gullible girl acquiesce. Alva made an astonishing recovery from her entirely phantom illness, and when the wedding took place, Consuelo stood at the altar reportedly weeping behind her veil. The duke, for his part, gave up the woman he reportedly loved back in England and collected $2.5 million (approximately $25 million in today's money) in railroad stock as a marriage settlement.

Consuelo Vanderbilt was married at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City, New York, on November 6, 1895, to Charles Spencer Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough (1871-1934), and had two sons. Given the ill-fitting match between the duke and his wife, it was only a matter of time before their marriage was in name only. The duchess eventually was smitten by her husband's handsome cousin the Hon. Reginald Fellowes (the liaison did not last, to the relief of Fellowes's parents), while the duke fell under the spell of Gladys Marie Deacon, an eccentric American of little money but, like Consuelo, dazzling to look at and of considerable intellect. The Marlboroughs divorced in 1921, and the marriage was annulled, at the duke's request and his former wife's assent, on August 19, 1926. Though largely embarked upon as a way to facilitate the Anglican duke's desire to convert to Catholicism,the annulment,to the surprise of many,also was fully supported by the former duchess's mother,who testified that the Vanderbilt-Marlborough marriage had been an act of unmistakable coercion."I forced my daughter to marry the Duke",Alva Belmont told an investigator."I have always had absolute power over my daughter."

Consuelo,Duchess of Marlborough married,secondly,July 4,1921,Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan,a record-breaking pioneer French balloon,airplane,and hydroplane pilot who once worked with the Wright Brothers.Also a textile-manufacturing heir,Balsan was a younger brother of Etienne Balsan,who was an important early lover of Coco Chanel.Jacques died in 1956 at the age of 88.

The Glitter and the Gold,Consuelo Balsan's insightful but not-entirely-candid autobiography,was published in 1953;it was ghostwritten by Stuart Preston.A reviewer in the New York Times called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance."

She died at Southampton, Long Island, New York on December 6,1964,and was buried alongside her younger son,Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill,in a Bladon,Oxfordshire,England churchyard near her former home,Blenheim Palace,five days later.

It may be noted that her brother William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr. had a daughter,born 1903,who was also named Consuelo Vanderbilt.It is this younger Consuelo who appears with her sister Muriel in a portrait by Boldini.